Our team at Fire Forensics are leading experts in fire and explosion investigation in Australia and abroad and have offered our clients thorough and impartial fire investigation services for over 40 years.
Our qualified and experienced specialists solve the puzzle of fire: how it started, how it progressed and how future fires can be prevented, based on science and accurately gathering and investigating evidence. Our professional and prompt system of investigation and reporting sets us apart in the industry, and we take pride in our exemplary standards of client services and scientific techniques. Working thoroughly, lawfully and professionally, we are committed to solving the puzzle of fire and establishing the facts of the scene for our clients with the highest levels of personal and corporate integrity.
Our philosophy is that no job is too big or small for us to handle. Every fire has a unique story and series of events in the lead-up and offers a unique opportunity to uncover that story through thorough and impartial investigation. Here are two fires I have personally investigated that could happen to anyone.
The mosquito coil
I investigated a fire that involved a three-storey house, a mosquito coil and a plastic chest. The fire occurred because the mosquito coil was left unattended and was assumed to have self-extinguished, all while left in a metal perforated case on top of a plastic chest.
The family that occupied the property had been outside on their balcony in the early evening. The family was known to suffer bad reactions to mosquito bites, so they lit a mosquito coil. It took a few attempts for the coil to light due to the wind that evening, and once lit, it was placed in a perforated metal casing on top of a plastic chest to protect it from the wind. They family also wore incense wrist bands for extra protection.
After a few hours on the balcony the family returned inside to go to bed. The family reportedly believed the mosquito coil was ‘out’ because there was no smoke coming from the metal perforated case it was placed in. The father of the house did one last check of locking up the house at around 11pm and then went to bed.
Early the next morning the family was awoken to noises that sounded like someone was breaking into their home. When they came downstairs to investigate, they saw their deck and rumpus room on fire. Thankfully, the family evacuated the property without any injuries and were able to call the fire brigade for help.
Unfortunately, despite the fire brigade attending the scene, the family lost half their house and their vehicles in the garage to the blaze.
Uncovering the cause
The damage to the balcony was most severe in the area the mosquito coil was located. A security camera was located within a 1.5m radius of the area of origin and was working at the time of the fire. I was able to view the footage that showed smoke and then flames coming from the area where the mosquito coil was located.
Other wiring, electrical items and a gas barbecue were on the opposite side of balcony, over 2m away from the mosquito coil. The barbecue and the possibility of electrical and gas faults were eliminated as sources of the fire due to their directional primary fire patterns at the scene. The security camera and its wiring in the area were also able to be eliminated because the camera would not have been able to continue recording and catch the smoke and flame progression if it had caused the fire.
I determined that the fire had indeed occurred from the mosquito coil. My investigation found that the metal perforated casing the mosquito coil was positioned in allowed the heat to build up inside the casing. This localised the heat to the plastic chest which the metal casing was sitting on. Despite the casing being perforated, there was not enough ventilation for the heat to dissipate or the ash from the mosquito coil to escape.
As the mosquito coil continued burning, the heat increased inside the metal casing. This allowed the plastic chest to also increase in temperature to the point where it started to melt and caused the fire.
To the best of my knowledge, a fire resulting from a mosquito coil is not common. However, the process in which the fire occurred is quite common. There have been many fires that are caused by a campfire or candle being left unattended or improperly extinguished.
There are a few steps individuals can take to avoid fires such as these taking place:
- Always check the fire, flame or mosquito coil has indeed finished or has been properly extinguished before leaving it unattended.
- Make sure if the mosquito coil or flame is in a casing of any kind, it isn’t placed on a flammable surface.
- Always dispose of mosquito coil ash correctly and safely, or as per package instructions.
Three vehicles and a family home
I investigated a scene that had devastating consequences where a family lost their home and three vehicles in a fire.
The property was home to a couple, their two children and their niece. On the night of the fire all family members except the niece were home and asleep. The niece worked a shift that finished in the early hours of the morning. When she came home from work, she parked her vehicle in the far-right bay of the garage. She turned her vehicle ‘off’, went inside and went to sleep. Just over an hour later the family was alerted to the fire by passers-by pounding on their door. Thankfully, everyone in the house was able to escape and not suffer any injuries.
Uncovering the cause
The damage to the house was widespread. The fire had progressed into the roof cavity early into the fire, resulting in the loss of the roof structure over the garage. This caused safety issues which limited access to some areas of the house for investigators. Unfortunately, the house was broken into during the few days following the fire as it had not been properly secured.
The fire patterns throughout the house indicated that the fire originated from the garage. The house internals (apart from the roof structure issue and collapse) sustained smoke damage throughout. The least damaged areas were at the rear of the structure, with the worst damaged areas toward the front of the property. The laundry and front lounge were the closest rooms to the garage, and there was visible directional heat damage to their walls, studs, doors and cabinetry coming from the direction of garage.
The damage to the garage was extensive, with all three vehicles experiencing heat damage. The garage was sectioned into three bays, with the niece’s vehicle situated in the right-side bay. There was directional heat damage present on the two vehicles on the left of bay three. This was indicated by the left sides of each vehicle sustaining less heat damage than their right sides. The niece’s vehicle had sustained so much heat damage that the vehicle’s badge could not be identified, with the niece needing to confirm the make and model of the vehicle to investigators.
Further examination of the niece’s vehicle showed the directional heat damage present on the vehicle’s internal chassis. The boot and passenger compartments had directional heat damage indicating that the fire arose from the engine compartment.
The engine compartment had extensive heat damage. Most of the items in the compartment were identified and examined. However, the damage was too great to identify any faults. When the battery was examined, it was found that half of the battery had ‘broken off’ and fallen on the floor during the fire. The remains of the battery were minimal.
Although Fire Forensics’ investigators could determine that the fire originated from the engine compartment of the niece’s vehicle, the exact cause and ignition source to the fire could not be identified because the damage to the engine compartment and its contents were too great.